How English is English?

Published 20th May 2013
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When we think of the English language we may think that, despite its prominence as one of the leading languages used around the world, it is something which has developed in isolation. In fact, nothing could be farther from the truth.

We can trace the English language back to the invasion of Britain during the 5th century by tribes who crossed the North Sea from what is now Northern Germany and Denmark. Prior to this invasion the inhabitants of Britain spoke a Celtic language. The invaders pushed the native speakers to the North and West which leads to the remaining Celtic language in Wales, Scotland and Ireland.

One of the invading tribes were the Angles and the word England is derived from the Old English name Engla land, which means land of the Angles. The Angles were one of the Germanic tribes that invaded and settled in Great Britain. The Angles came from the Angeln peninsula in the Bay of Kiel area of the Baltic Sea. According to the Oxford English Dictionary, the first known use of England to refer to the southern part of the island of Great Britain occurs in 897.

This first version of the dialect was spoken until around 1100 and although we would not recognise much of the language today it does provide the root to almost half of the most common modern words.

From 1100 to around 1500 the language evolved into Middle English following the invasion of William the Conqueror in 1066. The new invaders brought with them a form of French which became the language of the Royal Court and the ruling classes. English became more dominant again in the 14th Century but with the addition of a number of French words.

What we would understand to be modern English was created following a sudden change in pronunciation, known as the Great Vowel Shift which caused vowels to be pronounced in a much shorter form.

From the early 16th Century the British people were coming in contact with people from around the world and this fact, along with the Renaissance of Classical learning, meant that many new words and phrases entered the language. The invention of printing also meant that there was now a common language in print. Books became cheaper and more people learned to read. Printing also brought standardisation to English. Spelling and grammar became fixed, and the dialect of London, where most publishing houses were, became the standard. In 1604 the first English dictionary was published.

The main difference between the early Modern English and the language we recognise today is vocabulary. Our modern language has many more words driven both by the Industrial Revolution, where technology created a need for new words and also by the fact that the British Empire at its height covered one quarter of the earth’s surface, thus the English language adopted foreign words from many countries.

So when we think of English we need to consider its history and the fact that, the language of the United Kingdom is far from an isolated language which has grown up only on these shores. We are living with an evolved and evolving language, rich with the best elements from around the globe.

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